[Viewpoint] Ending the national waste

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[Viewpoint] Ending the national waste

In my high school days, we had direct voting to select the student council president to practice democracy, although the system was still a rarity in Korean politics. Top-grade and popular senior candidates flaunted flowery campaign promises. I stood out with catchy promises of arranging a joint sports day with a neighboring girls’ school and regular dates with students there.

Emboldened by uproarious cheer, I pledged to build a bridge to connect our school with the girls’ school. The principal and head teacher were forced to laugh amid the ensuing applause and uproar. The student president’s role was to catch misbehaving peers, keep watch at the school gate and oversee disciplinary rules. No one scolded me for failing to keep my word during my tenure. I, nevertheless, paid for my recklessness by failing to get into college at the end of the year.

Presidential elections and campaigning have been in practice for more than a decade now. A student chairman can be preposterous in his or her campaign promises but a president’s pledges before 50 million people are relied upon as potentially shaping the future of the country. Korean politicians are envied by their counterparts in Japan and China for their audacity and liberty of pursuing multibillion-dollar campaign pledges, like building a high-speed railway and international airport as well as an administrative municipality.

Each government in the recent past on average carried out 100 ambitious projects pledged during presidential campaign and 400 since the Kim Young-sam administration. The camps for the presidential election next year are preparing to come up with more than 100 campaign platforms. The more preposterous and controversial, the better as they can stir news. The promises to create a new administrative city and recreate four major rivers were ingeniously exorbitant.

The next set of presidential camps would have to concoct more shocking platforms to beat them. We may hear of free medical care, a high-speed railway service between Gwangju and Daegu, a Dubai-like free trade zone, luxury apartments at affordable prices and even a railway service to Siberia.

There is no turning back once campaign promises lead to votes. When these promises are broken, the president and government are reproached as betrayers. They inevitably would have to carry them out at the cost of a government deficit and emotional division. It is estimated it would cost a total of 195 trillion won ($178 billion) to complete all the extravagant projects vowed by the Roh Moo-hyun and the incumbent Lee Myung-bak administrations. When including the 100 trillion won expected to be pledged by the next president candidate, the total would take up three-quarters of a year’s worth of the government budget.

No other country would dare to pursue presidential campaign platforms worth 300 trillion won in just over a decade. It wouldn’t be much of a problem if we could afford it. Over 20 million people in this country barely muddle through a day. When invested, one trillion won would be enough to create 300 companies with assets of 5 trillion won. Some 300 public-funded companies equally divided among local areas could create 500,000 new jobs and save a lot of work for politicians in coming up with their own bizarre and expensive ideas to please voters in their constituencies.

Controversies over campaign platforms have long been customary. The high-speed railway and airport construction raised less uproar as they have been generally agreed in their function and necessity. But the major infrastructure projects pledged by Lee and Roh such as creating an entirely new municipality and reconstructing four rivers were too elephantine.

A major state infrastructure project could rock the entire nation. There would be few who would sincerely congratulate a neighborhood for winning a multibillion-dollar deal. Other local governments would bear criticism and resentment from residents for not doing enough for them. It is why the governments who lost in the recent bidding for new corporate and scientific zones cannot easily accept their defeat and walk away.

The same thing is happening today and will likely continue. Peace in the everyday lives of common people is disrupted and divided by angry and extreme protests by local government bureaucrats and politicians.

If there is no cure for the bad habit of trotting out reckless campaign pledges, we may have to consider the extreme measure of setting a financial cap - say about 30 trillion won - on presidential campaign platforms. Or even better would be constitutional reform to replace the single five-year presidential tenure with two-term four-year system to ensure continuity and responsibility in policy making.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff
The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

By Song Ho-keun
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